Is Hamlet’s distress understandable? Why does he fail to act until too late? Is his inaction due to a tragic flaw?
Until relatively recently, critics tended to assume that the causes of tragic misfortune resided in some moral defect of the protagonist. Aristotle’s term hamartia (derived from “fault,” “failure,” guilt” but literally meaning to “miss the mark”) was often translated as “tragic flaw,” leading critics to seek the chink in the hero’s armour (such as pride or ambition) which leads to his or her downfall. Although the precise meaning of hamartia remains a matter of debate, the notion of the hero’s tragic flaw has inspired a rich tradition of criticism and remains a useful starting point for thinking about character. Some of the most important interpretations of Hamlet’s tragic flaw are:
Goethe: Hamlet is not tough enough. He lacks mettle:
… it is clear to me what Shakespeare has set out to portray: a heavy deed placed on a soul which is not adequate to cope with it. And it is in this sense that I find the whole play constructed. An oak tree planted in a precious pot which should only have held delicate flowers. The roots spread out, the vessel is shattered. A fine, pure, noble and highly moral person, but devoid of that emotional strength that characterizes a hero, goes to pieces beneath a burden that it can neither support nor cast off. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796), trans. Eric Blackall, book 4, 145-6. http://books.google.ch/books?id=R6twf14J_igC&pg=PA146&lpg=PA146&dq=#v=onepage&q&f=false
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Hamlet’s delay, and ultimately his downfall, is caused by too much thinking: his thoughts, and the images of his fancy, are far more vivid than his actual perceptions. … The effect of this overbalance of the imaginative power is beautifully illustrated in the everlasting broodings and superfluous activities of Hamlet’s mind, which, unseated from its healthy relation, is constantly occupied with the world within, and abstracted from the world without, – giving substance to shadows, and throwing a mist over all common-place actualities. “Lectures and Notes on Shakspere and Other English Poets” at http://shakespearean.org.uk/ham1-col.htm
A.C. Bradley: Hamlet suffers from the tragic and melancholy recognition of our finite human condition – though our souls may be infinite, our bodies are mortal:
I have dwelt thus at length on Hamlet’s melancholy because, from the psychological point of view, it is the centre of the tragedy, and to omit it from consideration or to underrate its intensity is to make Shakespeare’s story unintelligible. But the psychological point of view is not equivalent to the tragic; and, having once given its due weight to the fact of Hamlet’s melancholy, we may freely admit, or rather may be anxious to insist, that this pathological condition would excite but little, if any, tragic interest if it were not the condition of a nature distinguished by that speculative genius on which the Schlegel-Coleridge type of theory lays stress. Such theories misinterpret the connection between that genius and Hamlet’s failure, but still it is this connection which gives to his story its peculiar fascination and makes it appear (if the phrase may be allowed) as the symbol of a tragic mystery inherent in human nature.
Wherever this mystery touches us, wherever we are forced to feel the wonder and awe of man’s godlike ‘apprehension’ and his ‘thoughts that wander through eternity,’ and at the same time are forced to see him powerless in his petty sphere of action, and powerless (it would appear) from the very divinity of his thought, we remember Hamlet. And this is the reason why, in the great ideal movement which began towards the close of the eighteenth century, this tragedy acquired a position unique among Shakespeare’s dramas, and shared only by Goethe’s Faust. It was not that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy or most perfect work of art; it was that Hamlet most brings home to us at once the sense of the soul’s infinity, and the sense of the doom which not only circumscribes that infinity but appears to be its offspring. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1905. 127-28.
Ernest Jones: The Freudian interpretation, or Oedipus complex. Hamlet is driven by the unconscious desire to kill his father and marry his mother. Thus, his attitude toward Claudius is ambivalent; he is grateful to Claudius for removing his “rival” for his mother’s affections (King Hamlet) but also resents him as his new father-figure.
As a child Hamlet had experienced the warmest affection for his mother, and this, as is always the case, had contained elements of a more or less dimly defined erotic quality. … Now comes the father’s death and the mother’s second marriage. The long ‘repressed’ desire to take his father’s place in his mother’s affection is stimulated to unconscious activity by the sight of some one usurping this place exactly as he himself had once longed to do. … The two recent events, the father’s death and the mother’s second marriage . . . represented ideas which in Hamlet’s unconscious fantasy had for many years been closely associated.
The call of duty to slay his uncle cannot be obeyed because it links itself with the call of his nature to slay his mother’s husband, whether this is the first or the second; the latter call is strongly ‘repressed,’ and therefore necessarily the former also. “The Oedipus-Complex as An Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: A Study in Motive,” pp.98-101. http://www.shakespeare-navigators.com/jones/index.html
These are just a few of the most influential early views of Hamlet. Other theories abound, many of which do not impute a flaw to Hamlet. Indeed, it is by no means clear that the causes of tragedy are to be sought in character; Aristotle, for instance, regarded plot as the most important element of drama (followed by character). Consider Baldick’s definition of hamartia:
hamartia The Greek word for error or failure, used by Aristotle in his Poetics (4th century BCE) to designate the false step that leads the protagonist in a tragedy to his or her downfall. The term has often been translated as ‘tragic flaw’, but this misleadingly confines the cause of the reversal of fortunes to some personal defect of character, whereas Aristotle’s emphasis was rather upon the protagonist’s action, which could be brought about by misjudgement, ignorance, or some other cause. ” hamartia ” The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Chris Baldick. Oxford University Press, 2008. 14 September 2011 http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t56.e521, underlining added.